Statistics show that only about 15% of New Years Resolutions are kept. With an 85% failure rate, it’s no wonder that the amount of resolutions made is dropping. You wouldn’t buy a product that is defective 85% of the time, so why buy into the annual hype about resolutions? A strategy that fails over four fifths of the time is broken. The question is, how do you fix it?
Most resolutions come in the form of habit changes. Quitting smoking, hitting the gym and staying organized are all based on routine habits. I’ve spent the last few years changing habits. Training myself to become organized, exercise regularly, eat healthy, wake up early and work productively.
Resolutions Require Strategy, Not Willpower
I believe that most New Years Resolutions fail because people approach them incorrectly. Instead of developing a strategy for changing habits, most people try to rely on willpower. While willpower and motivation can get you through the first week or two, it can’t last forever.
With the right strategy, however, you can make habit changes a success. There is no perfect formula, but after changing dozens of habits in myself over the last few years, I can offer a few suggestions:
- Create a Trigger. A trigger is a specific ritual you perform whenever you get a particular cue. This ritual focuses you on performing your habit, rather than sliding into old vices. Snapping your fingers when you feel the temptation to smoke; jumping out of bed at the sound of your alarm or repeating, “do it now!” to yourself are all triggers designed to kick your habit off. Practice your trigger and it will become automatic, overriding your default behaviors.
- Replace Lost Needs. Most habits fulfill a purpose of some kind, even if the side-effects are negative. You might watch television to relax, even if you have other things you would rather do. You might eat junk food to feel full, even if it isn’t healthy. Consider what you are giving up in your habit change and make an effort to replace those lost needs.
- Write It in Ink. A commitment inside your head isn’t a commitment at all. Keep a binder where you can store written commitments for habit changes. Not only will writing reinforce a promise to yourself, it will clarify your thinking as to what exactly you want to change.
- Commit for a Month. Resolve to stick to your change for at least thirty days. Less than this and you are likely to fall back into old habits. Three to four weeks is all it takes to condition a new habit.
- Keep a Journal. Open up a new word document and commit to writing a few sentences each day about your progress. I’ve found this method helpful in reminding me about my commitment and helping me focus on the change I want to make.
- Increase Positive Feedback. If you reward a behavior, it will increase. Punish a behavior and it will be reduced. This feedback mechanism is common to all animals with a nervous system from sea slugs to human beings. If your new habit makes you feel worse than the old habits, it can’t last.
- Strategic Enjoyment. One way to create more positive feedback is to structure your habit so it becomes more fun. Going to the gym isn’t the only way to exercise if you hate it. Eating tofu isn’t the only meal option for vegetarians. Look for ways you can make a new habit more enjoyable.
- Think Years, Not Months. A diet that consists of grapefruit and water isn’t going to provide nutritional needs to last your whole life. Work on creating changes to your diet, work, exercise or routines that can be sustained for years. Crash diets and 18-hour workdays will eventually break.
- If You Slip Up, Start Over. I consider a habit change complete when I can go thirty consecutive days. If you slip up and break your habit on the 3rd, 15th, or 27th day, start over. This keeps you from cheating on days with the excuse that you will resume the day afterwards.
- Behavior First, Results Later. Don’t let watching the scale or your bank account discourage you when trying to change a habit. The correct change in behavior has to come before any results start to appear. Focusing too much on losing weight, working less or being rich and throw off your attempts to form good habits.
- One Habit at a Time. Don’t tackle several changes at once. Successfully conditioning one habit change is more useful than giving up on a half dozen changes after a month.
- Learn From Mistakes. This one is pretty obvious, but it’s surprising how many people when they fail to make a change, go back to using the exact same strategy. Figure out why you failed previously, and don’t be too quick to blame willpower.
- Consistency Counts. A habit that is performed the same way, at the same time and under the same conditions every day for a month will be reinforced far more strongly than one that changes throughout the week. Be consistent and you can spend less time reinforcing a habit.
- Create a Habits List. When I started changing habits I created a list of all the changes I would like to make. Each month I’d pick one change and focus on it until I could cross it off the list. This method can focus your enthusiasm so you don’t take on too much or too little.
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